Meet Intuition Robotics’ UX Researcher, Danielle Ishak

Elli•Q posing with Danielle

We recently wrote about how social companion robots can help us as we age, and how our portfolio company Intuition Robotics is contributing to that effort with the development of an active aging companion named Elli•Q. Intuition Robotics recently won Fast Company’s 2017 Innovation by Design Award for User Experience (UX), and we caught up with the company’s UX researcher Danielle Ishak to learn more about her work with Elli•Q.

Danielle is a human factors and ergonomics researcher who focuses on human-robot interaction with older adults, specifically on different trust models and how a robot’s design can directly influence trust. At Intuition Robotics, she ensures that the research and data she collects is used to help inform design, and macro and micro interactions. She spends a lot of her time in the field working with older adults and their families, trying to understand how to make Elli•Q even more cutting edge.

Why has Intuition Robotics decided to develop a social companion robot for older adults?

As many of us know, the Baby Boomer generation is going to double our existing older adult population. The reality is that we will not have enough human resources to care for our older adults, as we do today. We’ll need to rely on automation in some fashion in order to best prepare ourselves for the future. Elli•Q is not designed to replace human care, but to really be there for someone when human care is not available or desired. Many older adults want to age in place in their homes. They don’t want to move into a senior care community, and yet they don’t want a stranger to come live with them. That’s when Elli•Q comes in.

This robot is specifically designed for older adults. This is not a general purpose robot. Rather, the features, movements and language used is traced back to a data point coming from an older adult. Elli•Q also proactively engages in conversation, or will proactively suggest content. You may be sitting in your living room and Elli•Q may suggest a desired activity you would like to do at that moment. Whether it’s a brain game, or listening to music, Elli•Q knows what to suggest through our machine learning algorithms.

How do you think cognitive computing technology can benefit this demographic?

Many older adults want to age in place and stay as independent as they possibly can. Independence is key and and there is a lot of pride associated with it! That being said, many older adults will find alternatives, out of fear of falling, isolation, or declining quicker than anticipated. Instead of making drastic life changes, you can use technology like Elli•Q to age in place longer. It can remind older adults of daily tasks, help socialize them, keep them cognitively and physically active and also keep loved ones in the loop. That way, families are able to make a more confident decision about having the older adult age in place.

What is your approach to user experience research and testing?

There is no one approach for capturing meaningful data. It all depends on what you are trying to find. My favorite way to approach this problem is to flip it upside down. Let’s say you would like to get data for A and you come up with method B, before going to the field or collecting any data points, I translate what you would find using method B to support question A. That way, you are able to find gaps in your method before you go out to the field. It can take longer up front, but saves you lots of time and money in the long run.

Who are you primarily working with, and how have you been recruiting users?

Most of our participants, we got organically. Children of older adults reach out to us, older adults reach out to us, caregivers reach out to us and we love it! We work with a number of different organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area that support seniors who are either aging in place, or in a senior community. Once we establish a relationship with an organization or with a family, I will host an informational session about Elli•Q, and older adults or their families can volunteer to participate in our research programs with us.

In your experience, how do older adults react to social companion robots?

I found that older adults think they are bad at using technology, and it’s not true! Most of the technology out there simply isn’t designed for them, and therefore they are destined to fail when using it.

When starting a session with Elli•Q, a lot of the time participants will apologize ahead of time and say that they don’t know how to use technology and it always breaks on them, expecting the same to happen with Elli•Q. Without fail, there is always surprise and delight after interacting with Elli•Q The older adults feel so accomplished that they are able to get what they want from technology all by themselves, so easily and simply. I feel so lucky to get to watch that, and experience that over and over again.

What have you learned about how older adults think about, or interact with, artificial intelligence-based robots that you didn’t know before? What has surprised you the most?

I would say what is so surprising is how open older adults are. When I first got into this field, I thought to myself there is no way that older adults would want to talk to a chatbot….. I was very wrong. Older adults want companionship in their homes. Many of them have lots of aches and pains throughout the day, so being able to talk to something and have it listen to you and help you in your own home through speech is priceless.

What phase in the testing process are you at right now, and what is the next step?

There is limited information out there on Human-Robot Interaction with seniors in a non- academic setting. Which leads us to continuously run multiple studies at once. As of right now, we are getting our second generation Elli•Q ready for our beta program. Elli•Q’s will be living in older adults homes in Florida and California for an extended period. If you are interested in participating, or think your family members would like to, please reach out!

Do you think we will all have a robot companion in the future?

Absolutely. I believe that just like we know how to type to use our computers, or swipe using our phones, we will soon learn how to interact with robots — and it will be the most natural and helpful method of interaction yet.